Trippy New Stream Frog Named After J.R.R. Tolkien

Scientists who discovered the frog in Ecuador say it looks like it 'lives in a universe of fantasies, like those created by Tolkien.'

A large, colorful frog holds on to a branch
Hyloscirtus tolkieni .

Juan Carlos Sanchez-Nivicela / Archive Museo de Zoologia, Universidad San Francisco de Quito

One of the tragic realities that often accompanies the discovery of a new species is that the species is already facing extinction. It may be too soon to know the fate of a species of stream frog recently discovered in Ecuador, but there's plenty to be excited about. Consider its beguiling looks, a wonderfully literary name, and perhaps best of all, it was NOT found in a disintegrating habitat.

In fact, Hyloscirtus tolkieni lives in the pristine streams of the Río Negro-Sopladora National Park, a protected area that preserves thousands of hectares of almost primary forests in southeastern Ecuador. As in, hopefully, this charismatic creature has a chance.

The newly described frog comes from a group of amphibians called stream frogs, so named because the adults and tadpoles live in the waters and riparian vegetation of the Andes' rivers.

The researchers who discovered the frog, Juan C. Sánchez-Nivicela, José M. Falcón-Reibán, and Diego F. Cisneros-Heredia, named the new frog Hyloscirtus tolkieni in honor of one of their favorite writers, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings."

“The new species of frog has amazing colours, and it would seem that it lives in a universe of fantasies, like those created by Tolkien. The truth is that the tropical Andes are magical ecosystems where some of the most wonderful species of flora, fungi, and fauna in the world are present," says Cisneros-Heredia, director of the Museum of Zoology of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito USFQ and co-author of the study describing the frog.

Map showing the type locality of Hyloscirtus tolkieni sp. nov. at the Río Negro-Sopladora National Park, province of Morona Santiago, Republic of Ecuador.
Map showing the locality of Hyloscirtus tolkieni at Rio Negro-Sopladora National Park, Ecuador.

Sanchez-Nivicela et al

Río Negro-Sopladora became Ecuador's first national park in nearly a decade when it was dedicated in January of 2018. The park comprises 75,654 acres of pristine páramo and cloud forest ecosystems and now protects a formerly unprotected gap in the biodiversity-rich Sangay-Podocarpus Corridor. The park is a crucial link in a 100-mile chain of protected ecosystems in the Andes Mountains.

Since 2020, there have been a number of expeditions in the park, many of which have resulted in the discovery of new species previously unknown to science.

“For weeks, we explored different areas of the Río Negro-Sopladora National Park, walking from paramo grasslands at 3,100 meters elevation to forests at 1,000 meters," says Sánchez-Nivicela, an associate researcher at the Museum of Zoology of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito USFQ and co-author of the study.

The new frog is quite different in appearance from its kin. Not only is it relatively large at 2 1/2 inches, but it has very distinctive coloring. As described by the researchers and as shown in the images, it is greyish-green back with yellow spots and black specks. Its throat, belly, flanks, and the undersides of its legs are golden yellow with large black spots and dots, and its fingers and toes have black bars and spots and broad skin stripes. Not to mention those striking pale pink and black eyes.

Colorful frog hanging from a branch
Hyloscirtus tolkieni.

Juan Carlos Sanchez-Nivicela / Archive Museo de Zoologia, Universidad San Francisco de Quito

The species is still only known from one locality, and there is not enough information to know its conservation status. However, the authors explain that it is urgent to "establish research and monitoring actions to study its life history and ecology, as well as its population size and dynamics." They also emphasize the importance of exploring other areas in search of additional populations and assessing whether enduring conservation might be affected by any threats.

"The description of new species is an important mechanism to support global strategies for the conservation of vulnerable environments since it reveals the great wealth of biodiversity that is linked to countless natural resources and environmental services," notes a press statement for the study. "Amphibians are important pest controllers and play vital ecological roles in the stability of nature. Unfortunately, 57% of amphibian species in Ecuador are threatened by extinction."

Ecuador has struggled with deforestation but has been making progress in its efforts to protect the Amazon area. Given that Ecuador's forest is home to 14 indigenous nationalities, 8% of the planet's animal species, and 10% of the planet's flora—not to mention a newly discovered pink-eyed stream frog—preserving more forest can't come soon enough.

This study was published in the international journal ZooKeys.